It was bound to happen to this injury ridden group of Celtics eventually. While the players who have managed to remain relatively healthy have done an admirable job at times in the wake of Kevin Garnett's and Marquis Daniels' extended absences, the added minutes placed on those remaining players took its toll last night against the Chicago Bulls. The end result was a 96-83 loss, the Celtics' third in their last five games.
All of the ingredients for an upset were spread on the table: The salivating thought of three days off awaiting them, a grueling five-games-in-seven-nights stretch coming to an end, a young and athletic Bulls team waiting in the weeds, and a slight hangover after a ridiculously easy win against a helpless New Jersey Nets squad the night before.
A distinct lack of energy was apparent from the start and it enveloped the Celtics for the remainder of the evening, as they saw Chicago block shot after shot (10 blocked shots on the evening), reach the array of loose balls first, willingly hit the floor, and capitalize on some of Boston's lackluster plays that resulted in turnovers (16 Chicago points off 18 Boston turnovers). But should it come as much of a shock? Not necessarily. Especially considering Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo have been hovering around the 40-minutes-per-game mark the past six games.For the Celtics and Heat back on January 6, 48 minutes of basketball just wasn't enough. So they played five more. When it was all said and done and the Celtics had won, Ray Allen had played 37 minutes, Paul Pierce had tallied 43 and Rajon Rondo came in at the half century mark. Their reward? One day off before a rematch with the Hawks, followed by another day off before crashing Toronto's party in Canada, then finally making it back back to Boston, only to see the Hawks again. Then it was off to New Jersey and then right back to Boston to face the Bulls for the third time this season. I'm breathing heavy just from typing that. Imagine experiencing it.
Throughout this six-game stretch, Rondo's averaged 41.6 minutes, Pierce has put in 38 minutes per game and Allen's hot on his heels with a 37.0 minutes per game average. Add in Rondo hitting the floor at least five times per game, Pierce banging an opponent's knee with his previously infected one at least once every other game and Allen's increasing age, and the minutes problem is compounded even further.
Against the Bulls it all came full circle, as no offensive rhythm developed early on, and the Bulls were allowed to run away with the first quarter. Not ten minutes were played before the Celtics were staring their first double-digit deficit of the evening in the face, after a Tyrus Thomas putback dunk gave Chicago a 25-15 lead with 2:02 left in the first. After 12 minutes had expired, Chicago had scored 29 points to the Celtics' 18, by hitting 13 of their 23 shot attempts (56.5 percent).
Game. Set. Match. Sure, the Celtics had their chances to claw their way back into the game, and at times they did, whittling the deficit down to somewhere between four and six points, only to see their ball movement stop and Chicago answer with a bucket inside or a pair of free throws (sometimes off of a Celtics turnover). Not even the crowd could muster any energy, as they had next to nothing to actually cheer for, unless they wanted to resort to supporting the block party the Bulls were throwing for the Celts. Chicago might have only tallied 10 blocks, but it felt like more than that. As the ball movement decreased for Boston (a season-low 17 assists last night), so did its chances of prevailing with a win. It would have been an ugly, come-from-behind-in-the-final-seconds kind of win, based mostly on one-on-one play, but it would have been a win nonetheless.
Besides Eddie House coming through with 11 points on 5-6 shooting, no single player proved capable of igniting an offensive run that could have carried the Celtics to the promised land. Pierce was just 6-18, Ray finished 4-10 and Rondo hit six of 14. Clearly, playing less than 30 minutes against the Nets wasn't enough of a break for the Celtics' starters.
In the end, Chicago's defense was certainly up to the task. This was the wrong team for the Celtics to be playing, with three days off looming, a night after having to exert little effort to vanquish a Nets team that might have abandoned all of its defensive principles heading into the game. The Celtics almost had it too easy against the dormant Nets on Wednesday night, for Chicago was ready to take it to them, pushing the ball on offense early, testing the Celtics' strung out endurance that was limping behind on its last legs. Needless to say, the Bulls weren't going to surrender as easily as the Nets did. The Celtics had no answer for the aggressive style the Bulls were playing with and that was true even with Derrick Rose only playing 29 minutes because of inescapable foul trouble.
James Johnson didn't score, but he and Taj Gibson were quite the inside tandem, contesting nearly every shot the Celtics managed to throw up, while legitimately blocking four of them (again, it felt like more than that). Add an always assertive Joakim Noah to the mix and Kendrick Perkins just had too many bodies to deal with by himself, as starting power forward Brian Scalabrine was offering little help on the boards (three total) and spent the majority of his time along the perimeter.
While the thought of three days off must have been appealing to the guys in green, it wasn't enough to will them to a victory last night. It wasn't enough to make them suck up one final game, and give that limit-pushing effort that would have resulted in a fatigue they would have gladly recovered from this weekend. And for a team so reliant on the three-point shot, tired legs means more rim than net, which was the case last night, as the C's knocked down just four of their 17 three-point field goal attempts. To make matters worse, exhaustion and a lack of focus joined forces against the Celtics at the free throw line, resulting in a 15-28 team performance from the charity stripe.
The Bulls weren't what the Celtics needed last night, but that didn't stop the game from being played. The good news is the vital rest has indeed arrived. The bad news is the Celtics had to keel over in order to obtain it.
This wasn't the first time this season that the C's lost to an inferior team at the tail end of a grueling stretch of the schedule. If you'll recall, the Celtics battled through an 8-games-in-14 nights stretch through the first two weeks of November, which culminated in a loss to the upstart Indiana Pacers. Their record through those eight games: Just 5-3.